We all know that the NFL has strayed far-off from the bottom defense as the bottom archetype over the past decade. The increasing variety of empty and three×1 sets have forced defensive coordinators to make nickel the bottom defense, and that’s been true for some time now. Last season, per Football Outsiders, NFL defenses played with five defensive backs on 61.4% of their snaps, with six defensive backs (dime) on 13.9% of their snaps, and with 4 defensive backs (base) on 23.4% of their snaps.
While there are just a few old-school holdouts — the Seahawks played base on 38% of their snaps, and the Steelers, Dolphins, and Vikings did so on 34% of theirs — there are way more defenses abandoning base altogether in favor of more expansive coverage ideas. In 2021, the Bills led the NFL with 92% nickel, followed by the Cowboys and Colts at 78%, the Falcons at 74%, and the Eagles and Jets at 73%. Miami led the NFL in percentage of dime defense at 31%, followed by the Chiefs at 28%, the Titans and Rams at 26%, the Saints at 25%, and the Packers at 24%.
No team has thrown the concept of base defense out greater than the Cowboys, who lined up in base on just 1% of their defensive snaps in 2021. One reason for that is perhaps that once they did, they were really bad at it. Dallas allowed 8.4 yards per play and a Defensive DVOA of 75.5% in base. As Defensive DVOA is best when it’s negative and worse when it’s positive, that tells you ways far off the baseline their defense was in that regard.
Last season, with Dan Quinn as their recent defensive coordinator, the Cowboys ranked second overall in Defensive DVOA, behind only the Bills. They were great in nickel (a -12.36 DVOA) and unbelievable in dime (a -38.6 DVOA), so it was smart of Quinn and his staff to go together with that which works best.
Last season, there have been seven teams (the Cowboys, Bills, Patriots, Saints, Commanders, Packers, and Rams) playing lower than 20% base, while six teams (the Seahawks, Dolphins, Steelers, Vikings, Jaguars, and Texans) did it greater than 30% of the time. As seasons progress, our guess is that you simply’ll see more teams adding their names to the primary a part of that ledger, and running away from the second.